I hadn't heard of Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face until last year, following a screening of Holy Motors in Cannes when someone noted how Edith Scob was wearing a similar white mask (see here) to the one she wore throughout all but a few minutes of Eyes, where she plays the scarred daughter of a high profile Paris surgeon (Pierre Brasseur). Come to learn, the film's influence is more widespread than that, including films such as Pedro Almodovar's Skin I Live In, the mask for Michael Myers in John Carpenter's Halloween and even Tim Burton's Batman as Jerry Hall wears a mask to cover her face playing The Joker's secret lover, Alicia Hunt. Little did Alicia know, her plunge out the window was decided almost 30 years earlier.
Described as a horror, the adjectives "lyrical" and poetic are also associated with this film and both are incredibly appropriate. This isn't a horror film in the same way we think of them today. In fact, the very idea of "What is a horror film?" is much different today than it was 30 years ago.
Today, a horror film seems to embrace the idea of blood and gore, CG monsters, pale faces and cats that hiss and jump out of dark corners. What was considered scary 30 years ago may be laughed at today. However, while Eyes Without a Face may not exactly be "scary" in today's modern cinematic world, it skirts the edges of what it truly means to be scared more than most horror films of today.
While it has its share of gore (see below), Eyes Without a Face dances with the macabre by tackling the idea of a doctor's assistant (Alida Valli) who scouts for young girls to kidnap and deliver to the doctor so he can remove their face in order to repair his daughter's burned visage. Given the real world reality of plastic surgery as well as films such as Face/Off leaping to mind, the surgery itself is hardly shocking, but the story surrounding it should cause a shudder.
In one of the features included on this disc, Franju gets to the heart of what makes something truly scary, and it's not repulsive moments of gore, but instead the reality of a situation and how the audience expects to associate with it. In the case of Eyes Without a Face we have a doctor who is kidnapping and literally cutting off the faces of young women in an attempt to save his daughter from having to face the world with her disfigurement, not exactly something most normal people would be comfortable doing.
In addition to his lack of emotional attachment to the women he's mutilating, the fact his assistant is willing to dispose of dead bodies and be the one to lure the women into his clutches makes it all the more frightening. The audience isn't given an outlet they can associate with, they're left to suffer alongside the doctor's victims. And while we may not look at this movie specifically as scary, the theory behind what scared audiences when it was released holds true. You want to scare an audience? Remove the emotional outlet and any feeling of safety and let them squirm. It's comforting if even one character knows and disapproves of what's going on, but once you remove that comfort the audience is only left to their own devices to deal with what's taking place on screen.
A fascination with Eyes Without a Face, however, is about more than just thrills and chills, it delves into a creepy father/daughter relationship; it's moody and atmospheric, much of which comes directly from the screenplay by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac -- authors of the books that inspired Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and Henri Georges-Clouzout's Diabolique -- as much as it does Eugen Schüfftan's cinematography and Maurice Jarre's off-putting music that would find a better fit inside a Federico Fellini feature that it does here, but it would seem that is entirely the intent.
For these reasons Eyes Without a Face is comfortable fit beside films such as Diabolique, Roman Polanski's Repulsion and I immediately thought of Marion Crane driving down the road in Psycho even though the two films were released the same year and Repulsion five years later. There's even a ghostly quality to the final moments in the film and the way Edith Scob almost floats through each scene that had me, for one reason or another, thinking of Kaneto Shindo's Kuroneko (1968) of all things.
Criterion's Blu-ray release of this 1960, horror classic is an upgrade from their previous 2004 DVD release (spine #260). It adds an impressive, new high definition transfer as well as a just-recorded interview with Scob, while losing a gallery of rare production photos and promotional material that will remain only available on the DVD.
As for all that's included, I couldn't even watch Franju's 1949 documentary Blood of the Beasts, which takes a look at the slaughterhouses of Paris with an unflinching and graphic eye. If you've seen the scene in Kevin Macdonald's crowd-sourced documentary Life in a Day in which a cow is killed via airgun and bled out, that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the slaughtering seen here. I couldn't handle it.
Otherwise the interview with Scob is mildly fascinating along with interview excerpts featuring Franju, one of which is held in a cheesy, fake mad scientist laboratory setting where the bubbling of the colorful liquid in the beakers is just as loud as the dialogue.
Finally, there are two essays included that can also be read online, "Appearances to the Contrary: Franju's Eyes Without a Face" by Patrick McGrath and "Eyes Without a Face: The Unreal Reality by David Kalat. Neither is ground-breaking, but interesting nonetheless.
Overall I was quite glad I finally had a chance to see this film as it feels like the center of a web of connecting films from all those I mentioned already and certainly several more. Among many other reasons, it's these connections that add a layer to film history that is continually rewarding when explored. To see how director are not only influenced, but how they interpret those influences and make them their own opens an opportunity for each and every new film you see to be rewarding.